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Inside an ancient monastery
CBS correspondent Bob Simon interviews Father Matthew, one of the monks on Mount Athos.
April 22nd, 2011
04:42 PM ET

Inside an ancient monastery

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

(CNN) - It was two years in the making for a television crew to get access inside one of the holiest sites of the Greek Orthodox world, the monasteries on Mount Athos in Greece. The cluster of 20 monasteries has remained perched on the cliffs high above the Aegean Sea for centuries.

In the monasteries, also known collectively as the Holy Mountain or The Garden of the Mother of God, the monks spend most of their time in prayer and are purposefully isolated from the outside world.

"A woman hasn't been allowed on the mountain for over a thousand years," said Bob Simon, correspondent for CBS News' "60 Minutes."

That prohibition against women even extends to animals, with the exception of cats who pull double duty as rodent control. The only food the monks import is cheese - because it comes from cows. Otherwise they all grow their own food on the island.

"The whole purpose of [the monks] being there is to be away from the outside world to a remarkable extent. Monks have spent decades there without spending a day off the island," he said.

"Technically it's a peninsula, but they don't have newspapers or television or radio or women, and the whole idea is to just devote themselves entirely to prayer, so they're really not interested with what goes on in the outside world and they don't want to get involved in it."

Simon thinks the only reason he and his crew were granted access to the monks, many of whom had never done interviews, was a story they did on the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the global community of 300 million Greek Orthodox Christians.

Simon said the interview was received well, especially in the United States.

"I think [the Patriarch] sort of leaned on the monks to say, 'Hey, we're OK, let them in,' but he has no executive authority the way the pope does, he can just make recommendations," Simon said. But even with that recommendation from on high, it still took several years to work out the shoot.

Just getting to the monasteries is chore. First you have to get to Thessaloniki in Greece.

"From Thessaloniki you take a long drive, about three hours on roads that are not great. Then you wind up in this place that is, I think I called it scruffy in the script, then you take a ferry. The only trouble is the waters between this town and Mount Athos are really rough," Simon said.

He said his producers got stuck in the town for three days while they waited for a day where the waters were calm enough to travel to the peninsula.

"There may be a forest or mountain somewhere that hasn't changed in the last 1,500 years, but in terms of an inhabited place, I don't think there's any place that has changed so little as Mount Athos," he said.

During World War II, Mount Athos came under the personal protection of Hitler when the Nazis invaded Greece. At the advice of German officers, the monks wrote Hitler and asked for the protection, which he provided. The monks told Simon that Hitler was planning to pillage the monasteries for their art treasures, even going so far as to send officers to photograph more than 1,000 works of art. But they said Hitler got bogged down in Russia and never removed any of the art.

Simon said in the course of their centuries-old tradition on the mountain, the monks viewed it as just a speed bump.

"They have no connection with our world. Their only consideration is to survive to keep the mountain going, because it is the most sacred spot on the world as far as they are concerned. It is a place [where] a life of prayer is more effective than anywhere else. So sure the Nazis threatened them, but over the centuries they been threatened by everybody."

Simon's report is scheduled to air on Easter Sunday. You can see a preview of the report here.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Church • Europe • Greek Orthodox Church • TV

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soundoff (803 Responses)
  1. Colin

    @steve. You talking about Leprechauns?

    April 23, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  2. ricky

    This was such a great article. But it is false. I have a friend, a nurse, who traveled to Italy, Greece, and Turkey. She dressed as a man to get access to the monastery in Thessaloniki. She has pictures to prove it.

    Gotcha!

    April 23, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  3. Rogue Leader 1

    We have just discoverd the GAYEST place on earth.... 🙂 I bet they a have some cool raves there.

    This is so wrong in so many ways... they should know that without women.... they would not exist to keep women out in the first place. Very odd indeed.

    April 23, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  4. Nikolay

    Dearest, Editor
    Sadly you haven't checked your facts carefully. In this article it says that there are about 300 million Greek Orthodox believers. In reality there are about 300 million Orthodox Believers , and I wouldn't imagine more than 25 million of them speak Greek. Although mount Athos is a holy place for all Orthodox nations, especially nations from the Balkans, equating Orthodoxy with a Greek Faith is just plain wrong. It is well known that Orthodoxy spread through Constantinople to all reaches eastern Europe and the Middle East originally in Greek and later translated in other languages, but it has been more than a millennium since some of those Churches split off from the Church in Constantinople.
    Nonetheless thank you for the wonderfully mystic article.

    April 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  5. TheProdigal

    Unfortunately, Bob Simon's statement is not correct - there have been women allowed on the Holy Mountain over the centuries, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Women on ships fleeing pirates were always given refuge in the monasteries if they could reach the port; during times of war, women and their families were sheltered in the monasteries and forests, including Jewish families from Thessaloniki during WW2; and in other instances of extreme need women were also allowed to enter. In Orthodox monasticism, the rules serve a purpose for the monks, but they are never meant to be oppressive, either for themselves or others, even though it may be viewed that way by people who don't understand. Unwillingly, the Vlachs for a short time forced the monks to allow their shepherdesses to use the land, and during the Greek civil war, women rebels happily joined their male comrades in abusing the monks and trashing their environment. A few women have thought it clever to disguise themselves as men and gain entrance.

    The absence of women - as well as of many other things - gives the monks more freedom to devote themselves more fully to prayer, including for those denied entrance to their monasteries and lands. I doubt there is another place on earth where men - 2000 of them - spend as much time beseeching God to show his loving kindness to their sisters in the world, even to those who hate and despise them.

    People in these blogs are so quick to speak and judge others without bothering to try to understand them. If you feel compelled to judge and speak, at least take the time to first learn something about those you are ready to condemn - or defend!

    April 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  6. Scott

    I'll let God be the judge, but I don't think He meant for us to isolate ourselves. I think we're here to make a positive difference to other people. IMHO, it's almost a cop-out to retreat from the problems of the world. How can you do good alone on an island? We can't actually do God any good. But we can help his children in this world. 'Just my $0.02. And probably worth about that much.

    April 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  7. Reality

    And in less than 15 words, said monasteries come crumbling to the ground:---

    There was and never will be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity!!!

    More details upon request

    April 23, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Mark9988

      and yet, here you are, spending time on a religion blog. it you don't believe, just walk away.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • holyguac

      Do you not realize you yourself are but a concept?

      April 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  8. Dave

    How's stuff get cleaned?

    April 23, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • holyguac

      Really, and how do they find stuff?

      April 23, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  9. candiroo

    A holy and spiritual place? They ask Hitler for protection while all the while people around them are being slaughtered. They cared more about their art work than lives; they cared more about themselves than others. Is this "spiritual" or Christian? Why didn't they ask their imaginary god for protection and leave it at that?

    April 23, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  10. Lilarose

    Hmmmm, this is interesting.....how about we sent all the men in the world between puberty to male menopause to this same place. Ladies! All we need are frozen embryos to make babies, we don't need the actual guy. Pay him lots for his contribution and then send him to Greece!

    April 23, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  11. Monastic

    They are content with their lives. It is hard to understand to the outside world, but they are living a life of prayer. It is their calling to do so. There are no wasted lives here.

    April 23, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Steev

      I suppose you would say a life without prayer is wasted, then?

      April 23, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  12. Kenny

    I think the next woman in there will have an unforgettable experience. I suspect she would be in a place where she would feel the spirit come to her with a force she has never known or felt. hehehe

    April 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  13. Agustus

    I snuck in a chick I picked up in Athens and banged here inside the monastery it felt very spiritual.

    April 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  14. Craig

    Damn, they must clean the sheets like 50 times a day.

    April 23, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  15. Derick

    Oh no, a group of men are doing something that doesn't involve women!!! The horror! Maybe all you whining liberal snot-nozzles should start your own nunnery (100% man free, except for cats) and do as they do. You would sing their praises and call them heroes!

    April 23, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Mary

      That's why I'm confused. There are plenty of convents that are just as strict about keeping males out. No one seems to be freaking out about them. =p

      April 23, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Colin

      I have to question the $exual proclivaties of a group of men (or women) who so dislike the opposite $ex so much that they lock themselves away in a monestary and ban the opposite $ex from entering – coincadentally, along with a couple of hundred others who feel the same way.

      I wonder what goes in in those halllways late at night.....

      April 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • frogpond

      I'd call them just as crazy as the monks. But what really strikes me as silly as spending your life doing nothing but try to communicate with a non-existant supreme being!

      April 23, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  16. Colin

    So, on this blog we have a story about $exually inhibited men hiding from life (and women) on a Greek Island, while on the blog before, we have half-witted Christians flocking like moronic sheep to a site in the Middle East where the son of the creator of the Universe was supposedly sacrificed (to himself) to forgive an original sin we now know never occurred.

    And you believers wonder why we freethinkers think you're weird.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Steev

      Congrats on your other blog post, Colin! How big a hat size will you need now? 😀

      April 23, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Colin

      @Steev. Don't follow.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Monastic

      You are free to think whatever you wish and free to live your life as you wish. Don't others deserve the same?

      April 23, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Steev

      @Colin – What? That wasn't you who were quoted on the "This Just In" article?
      It was at: news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/04/22/overheard-on-cnn-com-jesus-on-trial/
      I thought it might be you but perhaps it was some other Colin. *shrugs*

      April 23, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Mark9988

      Name-calling: the first and last resort of those unable to construct an argument on merit.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • holyguac

      It's ironic that you proudly claim to be a free thinker, yet you wish to inhibit others' thoughts and beliefs.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Colin

      @Monastic. Of course. Nobody's telling them they can't. But, by the same token, one cannot expect people to respect such ancient superst-itions, nor respect the intellect of those who still cling to them.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Drew

      Being an Atheist doesn't make you a fee thinker

      April 23, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Colin

      Ok, here's my "argument". I reject the supernatural. I reject ghosts, goblins, gods, life after death, the zodiac or anything else that requires magic beings that are not bound by the laws of physics.

      The Christian superst-ition is one of these. It requires belief in the most extraordinary of beings based entirely on an old book written by authors whose credibility we know nothing of – which book is, we now know, completely wrong in many places.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Colin

      @Drew. Agreed, but being a freethinker leads to the rejection of dogma – including religious dogma.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Drew

      So basically you are actually a very limited thinker, in that you only see the world in terms of physics

      April 23, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Red

      @Colin – When dealing with a issue that cannot be proven correct or incorrect (such as religion), I equally would have a hard time respecting somebody who focuses efforts on questioning the intelligence of those who support the other side of the issue. If you have something intelligent to bring to the table I will listen, but I have yet to see the fruits of your so-called "free thinking"

      April 23, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Colin

      @Red. This is where you are wrong. Religion can be absolutely disproven in that science can show we cannot survive our own physical deaths – which pretty much puts paid to 99% of religious beliefs. Then, the believers are forced to invoke magic. "well, we know all electric activity in the brain stops, but you hav an invisible soul that goes on." Same is true of the origins of the Earth – I mean 6 days and a talking snake – please.

      Once you get to a point where your opponent has to invoke magic to keep their argument going, you have won and tthe sheer inanity of their belief is apparent.

      I am sorry if I disdian those who resort to magic, but, come on, its hard to respect such an opinion.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Red

      @ Colin – So science has really proven there can't be an afterlife? I'd like to see the test and control groups on that one. Afterall, isn't science nothing more than man's attempt to explain things that were once a mystery? Yet, you automatically dismiss ideas that cannot be explained through current scientific thinking. Perhaps that's what the Bible talks about when it says God uses the foolish things to confound the wise...

      April 23, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Colin

      @Red. We experience lfe as an amalgamtion of our senses and the processing of the information by our brians. No sensory input, no processing, and body decaying = no life. Then, we get to the whole faterlife question. And believers have to run straight to magic. A soul that somehow survives, beings called gods to care for it forever, a place called heaven to live after we die.

      I am sorry, but, yes, I reject such nonsense wholesale. Just like I reject Leprechauns. Now, I cannot prove that gods or Leprechauns don't exist, but the concepts are , in each case, so far fetched, that I feel I can confidently say they do not exist.

      I am at a loss as to why this is an irrational or immoral view, as I am constantly told it is.

      April 23, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Drew

      @ Colin
      I don't think your view is immoral or any more irrational than anyone else's, just fairly limited. You have no more reason to believe in physics than the supernatural

      April 23, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Red

      @Colin – At a previous point in history I would have had equal difficulty trying to convince you that the world is not flat based on your strict adherence to your percenption of science. I find it ironic that many of the scientists who pioneered the scientific research on which you loosly try to base your arguments would disagee with the notion of dismissing the idea of a sepreme being based on scientific research. For instance, I have yet to meet a doctor who does not believe in medical miracles – things that should not have been able to happen based on scientific thinking. So, it is apparent that you don't agree with the majority of the scientific world any more than you agree with the religious world. I'm begining to think that the value of your "free thinking" is about equivalent to the value of most other things that are "free". You get what you pay for...

      April 23, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Colin

      @Drew. Yes I do. Physics works. That is why I can sit in my lounge in one part of the USA debating on line with others from totally different parts of the country. Religion/magic never delivers it just promises a reward after we die. A gpromise that, let's face it, it never has to deliver on.

      @Red. Yes, man thought the Earth was flat, until science showed otherwise. We also thought it was young and small, which is why the Bible got is so wrong with the whole talking snake theory. At its core, religion asks us to believe the most fantastic of notions – gods that never die, create the entire Universe, read minds, cause us to live afte we die etc, etc in the total absence of evidence.

      science on the other hand demands evidence and intellectual discipline. It will not accept somethin g becuase it fells good or makes one "happy".

      We all would prefer not to die, but as an atheist, I feel proud and honest knowing I am facing it without having to pretned I will llive happily ever after. I need no pretend sky-fairies to carry me off to happyLand.

      April 23, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • Drew

      Well first of all none of us can dispute the presence of a soul and life after death. Also, religion can deliver on its promises, in that it brings a lot of people peace and fulfillment in this life

      April 23, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Drew

      My last comment was unclear; I mean that it is pointless to argue about the presence of a soul, life after death, etc.

      April 23, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Red

      @ Colin – FYI, my response posted to the comment above this one.

      April 23, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  17. andrew9687

    The actual reason they don't allow women is to honor the Virgin Mary. Athos is called the "Garden of the Panaghia" i.e. garden of the Virgin Mary. As her garden only she is allowed there.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Colin

      Silly superst-ition. We now know that the word used to describe Mary in the gospels simply meant "young woman" not "virgin". How easily the believers accept nonsense.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Red

      Colin, your ignorance of the scriptures if laughable. Not only are you incorrect in your interpretation (perhaps you could provide a source for your reference?), but the gospels go into detail about how she had "known not a man." Even without the word in context, the scriptures are clear that Mary was a virgin. Perhaps you should comment only on matters in which you are actually educated...

      April 23, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • andrew9687

      The hebrew word "almah" is ambiguous – it can mean yound woman or virgin. When the jews translated their scriptures into greek, however, they used parthene, which means virgin. This same word is used in the Gospels. Please check your facts before pontificating.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Reader49

      Colin, Like your post below, you seem to enjoy showing your ignorance to everyone. Please continue.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  18. Red

    No women for 1,000 years. I imagine that must be a very quiet place...

    April 23, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • BENJI

      Very interesting place.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  19. girl1

    That sounds like a challenge to me! who will be the first woman to set foot inside this monastery in 1000 years? Thats more newsworthy imo.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Red

      Probably Lady GAGA

      April 23, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • jj11

      Right, here are some people who are not, and have not bothered anyone for 1000 years. So your challenge is to go to where they are and bother them. That's great, your a super person.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Tyler

      Feminazis like girl1 want equality with men while demanding months of paid maternity leave, cheaper insurance, generous scholarships, and guaranteed high-salary jobs after college simply because they're women. Go figure.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Tyler

      I'd like to add, feminism wasn't about getting equal rights with men; it was about retaining the advantages of being women while appropriating the advantages of being men. But that's off-topic. I'm glad there's one place on earth where traditions are kept intact.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • james

      Have some respect for their traditions. Why does your desire to ruin their tradition trump their desire to keep it?

      April 23, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  20. F Din

    Buddhist monks spend similar lives in Tibetan mountains WITHOUT women. Hindu Brahmcharis ( celibates) spend their
    lives in the company of women celibates (Pujarrans or female religious dancers) in Himalayas while resisting temptation.
    Sufi Islam has similar practices. Religious realm has its own dimensions. Not everybody can become a scientist or
    a politician.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Know What

      If they do no harm to anyone else, we can consider them as self-imposed, self-supporting mental insti.tutions.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Zargoth

      Know What...> got that right!

      April 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Drew

      well you can consider them as such but that makes you a close minded moron. What makes your way of life so wonderful that you will criticize theirs?

      April 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.